10 Wildly Unsuitable Olympic Venues for Competitors

Today, we think of Olympic events as being held in state-of-the-art venues built specifically by the host city for that year’s illustrious games. The planning committee begins to work as soon as cities are granted the opportunity to host. This has resulted in spectacular Olympic venues for athletes competing, hoping to win gold.

However, this hasn’t always been the case. Olympians have had to compete in conditions that range from dangerous to inconvenient since the 1896 restart of the Summer Games. Here are ten instances where Olympic venues were completely inappropriate!

10 London, 1908

The playing surface on the White City Stadium pitch was a potential problem for the Australian and British rugby teams. The open-air Olympic swimming pool ran parallel to the pitch. Although the pitch was safe for basic activities, a fall of several feet could pose a danger to players.

To catch any kicks towards the pool, netting was stretched over the gap and large mattresses were placed along the edges to prevent injuries.

The ball would regularly be kicked out of play into the pool, and it was reported that the Australians were better at handling the slippery ball—ending up 32-to-3 winners. Although the ball was likely to have suffered some damage, players avoided any injuries.[1]

9 Tokyo, 1964

Water polo competitors arriving at Tokyo’s Olympic pool found that the water was too shallow. Some teams complained immediately about their taller players not being able to stand on bottom of the pool, which gave them an unfair advantage. The Hungarian coach claimed that even his shortest player could reach the bottom, although this was somewhat exaggerated.

Keeping quiet was the Yugoslavian team—the tallest group in the tournament. Their players were able to shoot from a standing position.

The hosts tried to raise the water levels during the event. Perhaps justice was done in the end—the Yugoslavians only earning silver behind the victorious Hungarians.[2]

8 Athens 1896, Antwerp 1920

Swimming has been known to be the most resilient of all Olympic competitors. Conditions can vary from extreme to simple.

With no Olympic pool, entrants in the first modern Olympic Games had to endure the freezing waters of the Bay of Zea—racing in temperatures that reached up to only 13°C (55°F)—in chilly weather. Because all the races were held over one day, there were not many shelters available, so the swimmers didn’t have much chance to stay warm. After winning two events, the Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajos said that the cold was such that “his will to live completely overcame his desire to win.”

The newly built Antwerp pool for the 1920 Summer Games was commended by the IOC president—others disagreed. Aileen Riggin, an American swimmer who was a member of the 1920 Summer Games, said that her teammates were very unhappy with it. She likened it to “a ditch that had just been dug, with an embankment on the side for protection in case of war.” Swimmers reported that the water was black and freezing, with competitors having to wear several layers of clothing just to keep warm after racing.[3]

7 Paris, 1900

Regarded as one of the worst modern Olympics, the Paris Games were added to the city’s Universal Exposition World Fair almost as an afterthought. The organization, taken out of the IOC’s hands, was shambolic and some venues totally inadequate.

Track and field events took place in areas described as being more suitable for walking and picnics—the general public often wandering through the various competitions being held. The track for athletics was uneven and often wet, with long grass at parts and not always properly marked. Runners in the hurdle races found that they were jumping over broken telegraph poles, while the 400m hurdlers also had to contend with a water jump in the final straight—fortunately, not a lasting novelty.

The discus and hammer throwing events were held in a narrow, tree-lined lane. The many attempts which hit the trees were designated as “no throws.” With minimal safety regulations, spectators had to keep a careful watch out for misdirected flying implements.[4]

6 St. Louis, 1904

The Summer Games were mismanaged and poorly organized, just like Paris four year earlier. Similarly, they were added to the city’s World Fair event.

For the swimmers and water polo competitors, facilities were particularly dreadful—with tragic longer-term consequences. A temporary lake was built in the middle of the World Fair for life-saving demonstrations. Cattle would wander into the water from their pastures, contaminating the water. This apparently didn’t concern organizers.

The swimming and waterpolo events were held in this pool. Only three teams, all American, entered the latter event—eventually won by the New York Athletic Club. Even though it was held at the far side of the lake, the foolishness that led to playing in such filthy waters would prove disastrous. Four water polo players died within a year from typhus.[5]

5 Berlin, 1936

Basketball tournaments were not held outdoors until 1948. No problem if the weather was fine—but then came Berlin.

Matches at the 1936 Olympics were played in sandy tennis courts. On the day of the final, it rained…and rained, turning the court into a quagmire and making scoring ridiculously hard. When the ball hit the water-soaked ground, it wouldn’t move. It was also difficult to pass the ball because it was so lumpy.

The USA and Canada finalists wanted the match to be postponed. However, the German organizers insisted that it go ahead as scheduled. In an interview many years later, one of the Canadian players said that “Michael Jordan could have slipped from foul line to foul line and scored a basket without taking any steps.” At the end of the inevitably low-scoring final, the USA had triumphed by 19 points to 8. Canadian player, Jim Stewart, had the ball in his possession at the final whistle and managed to smuggle it off of the court—to keep as a souvenir, with the help of his watching wife. His teammates didn’t object. It was like a soggy and muddy soccer ball. It was not wanted by anyone else.[6]

4 London, 1948

Known as the “Austerity Games,” war-torn London hosted the first Olympics in twelve years.

The running track was only laid at Wembley’s Empire Stadium two weeks before the start of the Games. What the organizers hadn’t planned for was the athletics program running late into the day. This was a problem because the stadium didn’t have infield lighting.

On a soggy Friday evening, the second and final day of the decathlon was due to finish at 6 pm—delays meant that darkness had descended with three events still to go. Bob Mathias, a 17-year-old American from the USA, was the eventual winner. He had already spent time searching hands and knees for a flag marker hole. Mathias began the pole vault by himself, his rivals having already finished. Mathias was assisted by a teammate, who pointed a flashlight at the bar and pointed it up at the night sky.

The javelin was won by a single winner, but the foul line for no-throw was not visible in the darkness. The 1500m race was completed in driving rain at 10.30pm. There were some car lights to help illuminate the track. Although coming in third in the race, Mathias had eventually beaten the dark and all other obstacles to become an Olympic champion—the youngest to ever win decathlon gold.[7]

3 St. Louis, 1904

Back to St. Louis, it wasn’t only the competitors in the water who faced problems. Similarly, poor organization turned the Games’ toughest event into a near farce—only luck prevented a more serious situation from occurring.

The marathon course was a difficult endurance test, especially for inexperienced competitors. Starting in heat approaching 35°C (95°F), the unpaved roads were thick with dust. The runners had seven steep hills to climb and had to negotiate rough, stony terrain while also avoiding pedestrians and other obstacles.

Many athletes nearly died after inhaling too much dust. Even worse, there were only two water stops available.

The chaos continued until the end. American Fred Lorz was crowned the winner. However, it was discovered that he had taken a ride in a car for ten miles mid-race. His totally exhausted teammate, Tom Hicks, was then awarded the win—only finishing with some help and being given a “medicinal” concoction of brandy, eggs, and strychnine along the route. It could have been fatal if it wasn’t for the help of doctors right after the race. [8]

2 Beijing, 2008

Poor planning is not an exception for games that are more recent. Beijing’s Games posed a potentially serious problem for all competitors—the most polluted Olympics in history. The IOC was sufficiently concerned in the year preceding the Games’ start to consider postponing some endurance races.

Evening showers and changes of wind direction helped to reduce pollution as the Olympics began. However, the sun could sometimes barely be seen through the smog. Competitors often struggled with the heat and humidity. Additional rest breaks were also taken. In the football finals, there were stoppages at 30 minutes each in each half. Athletes with asthma were especially affected. Some medal contenders decided to not risk their health, including Haile Gebrselassie who held the marathon world record, but pulled out earlier in this year. Sergio Paulinho, 2004 cycling silver medallist, was forced to withdraw due to respiratory problems.[9]

1 POW “Olympics,” 1944

Taking a slight liberty here, but if anything demonstrates how the “Olympic spirit” could overcome appalling conditions, then the POW “Olympic Games” must be the best example.

The 1940 Tokyo and 1944 London Games had been cancelled by war. However, Polish prisoners of war held in German-controlled camps vowed to have their own Olympics. A similar event earlier in 1940 had to be held in secret—the discovery of the activities would have resulted in severe punishments for the POWs from Stalag XIII A in Nuremberg.

In 1944, however, the guards gave permission for an “Olympics” to be held in the harsh environment of Woldenberg Camp—with certain limitations. The Polish POWs made an Olympic flag out of old sheets and paper medals using special stamps.

Many events were held, including basketball, handball, football and track and field. Although the boxing tournament was very popular, it was cancelled due to injuries that were caused by the weaker physical condition of the prisoners. The camp authorities did not allow pole vaulting and fencing, javelin and archery events to be held. There were 369 prisoners who participated in 464 competitions. Some of these were deemed cultural and social as it was during the Games.[10]

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